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А. В. Махлаюк.   Солдаты Римской империи. Традиции военной службы и воинская ментальность


Soldiers of the Roman Empire: the Traditions of Military Service and the Martial Mentality

By Aleksandr V. Makhlayuk

In Ancient Rome «la metier de citoyen» necessarily required the military service of a citizen. But when the polis-type Rome had become the world power, the citizens' militia was replaced with the permanent professional army. To a significant degree it was emancipated from the civilian society and formed a specific corporation with its own interests, ideology, moral obligations and behaviour standards. We find reflections of that process in literary texts of the Late Republic and the Empire. In the works by ancient authors a new literary type of the Roman soldier appears, whose social status, psychology and behaviour are considered mainly in a moralistic way. Accordingly, his literary characteristics are mainly emotional and rhetorical, preconceived and anachronistic. On the whole, this literary portrait depicts the Roman soldier as a coarse half-barbarian, impious fighter, and self-willed, greedy and dishonourable creature too. The general attitude to the soldier in literary sources is a mixture of alienation, antipathy, contempt and fear.

However, because of its moralistic nature the attitude of the majority of ancient authors is deeply ambivalent. Behind strong condemnation of soldiers' deep-rooted vices there implicitly exists a certain ideal of the true Roman soldier's features. This ideal serves as a criterion to draw the line between moral evil and moral virtue. What this military-ethic ideal really existed can be proved by studying the same sources which quite frequently provide facts of heroic deeds of ordinary Roman soldiers and officers. And we must give the same credit to these facts as we do regarding the judgements of soldiers' depravity. In both cases the ancient authors operate a system of literary topoi («common places») and concepts that express important value oppositions characterizing moral outlooks not only of the authors, but also of the soldiers. Surely, such outlooks were not identical, and many components of soldier's mentality, even being originally connected to traditional Roman values, carried their own specific features conditioned by the army's evolution as a social and political force.

Such a contradictory combination of the old-fashioned republican traditions and realities of professional military corps most obviously comes to light in a dichotomy of the citizen's and soldier's status. From ancient literary and legal texts one can draw a conclusion that many traditional attitudes and establishments were preserved in the emperors' recruiting policy and in the public treatment of legionaries. This refers, first of all, to the orientation to the citizenship status of legionary soldiers, as well as to the complex of moral qualities required from the Roman military. These traditions called forth certain forms of the army's participation in politics and interrelations with the imperial government and individual emperors. One of the institutions that provided a participation of the soldiery masses in carrying out power functions was the soldiers' assembly (contio militum) similar to the citizens' assemblies in Rome. Military contiones manifesting in many cases a sovereign will of the army, held some potesterian functions, and through this institution, thanks to its old customs and precedents, the army was included in the system of acceptation and transition of imperial powers and provided its own corporative interests, becoming one of the decisive, and independent to a certain degree, forces in the field of Roman imperial politics during the first three centuries A.D.

Another specific form of the army's intervention into politics was soldiers' mutinies and seditions. In spite of the commanders' broad credentials and very strict sanctions, and of the fact that the Roman military law prevented from getting any disobedience and rebellious efforts, all the relevant measures had never been taken in a full volume in practice. The significant cause of such a situation was that the legionaries were considered as the Roman citizens and displayed themselves as a part of the civic community, not as a venal mercenary force. They considered themselves as partners and supporters of the ruler. In soldiers' uprisings and mutinies of the Later Republic and the Principate one can see certain manifestations of the ancient traditions of legionaries' self-government and polis democracy. This striking ability of the Roman warrior to strongly protect his rights and keep a well-organized order may be revealed by many facts. Roman generals and emperors had to reckon with those traditions and often made concessions to the troops. In order to overcome soldiers' rebellions the commanders appealed to their sense of honour and duty.

The Principate saw developed particular relations and ties of the emperor with his army, which had aroused in the last century of the Roman Republic. Those interrelations may be defined as the specific military clientela. Such clientele based on various personal bonds and mutual obligations of contractual nature was monopolized by the princeps who became the only patron of the troops. His monopolization of the military clientele was one of the key factors of political stability. It is thanks to the military clientele that the imperial political system was able to functionate as a whole. After the establishment of the principate, military service came to be regarded as a service rendered personally to the emperor, and the army as belonging to him not only because of his position as commander-in-chief, but also because of personal duties and relations. A peculiarity of the military clientele is that the specific informal components and obligations of soldiers, defined by the concept of personal fides and loyalty to the emperor, were indissolutably interweaving with notions of military ethics. Together with ideal, symbolic and legal factors (the idea of emperor as the only source and distributor of marks of distinction and material benefits, strong dynastic feelings among the soldiers, identification of military duties with personal faithfulness to the emperor and his family), of great importance was the way in which the emperor met his soldiers' everyday needs. The position of the army patron did commit the emperor to take his permanent care of the troops, to display generosity, personal military achievements and proximity to ordinary soldiers. The military patronate-and-clientele relations were specific because of the fact that the army, especially the detachments consisting of citizens, acted as one of the contracting sides, which (unlike the city plebs) took up serious responsibilities and preserved a sort of civic consciousness, thus being able to insist on the patron's fulfillment of his duties when necessary. The description of the relations between the emperor and the army as a kind of clientele makes it possible to define more precisely (than in case of hired army) a specific position held by the military forces within the political structure of Imperial Rome.

In order to understand peculiarities of the Roman military mentality, or soldier's ethos, it is needful to examine the army as a specific socio-political organism. Such an analysis shows that many of the social elements which drew people together in civic communities, in particular friendly ties among various microgroups, were present in the life of a military community. These elements and traditions made the legion and the camp something like a civitas. However, in the Early Empire, when the military and civilian spheres were sharply demarcated, to enrolled in the army stood for an almost complete break with the civilian society. The Imperial army was characterised by a new type of soldier with the special social and legal status, as well as with the special value orientation grounded on the soldier's commitment to his unit, loyalty to the Emperor and solidarity with his closest comrades-in-arms. These factors conditioned a specific corporativeness of the Imperial army.

Friendly relations among soldiers were one of the sources of such corporativeness. The existence of various groups and close comradely relations in the Roman army is revealed by an analysis of epigraphic data. Soldiers' inscriptions contain a number of terms that denote comrades-in-arms with different shades of meaning (commilito, contubernalis, commanipilaris, collega, frater, contiro, etc.). These inscriptions register the specific relations among soldiers and show that links between men from the same district, simultaneous conscription, joint worship of their deities, or membership in a collegia might have laid the foundation for a community of soldiers. Such comradely ties were preserved among veterans after their retirement. Apparently, a small unit, in which soldiers spent their daily life, played an important role in the development of informal friendly ties. Coherence of the so-called primary groups due to these ties was an important factor of combat readiness of detachments and units.

Many characteristic features of military ethos are connected with the corporative spirit and informal comradely relations within the military units. Opinions of his comrades and the honour of the unit that the soldier belonged to determined his behaviour in a battle, jealous attitude to the fame of other units and readiness to come to the rescue for his comrades-in-arms. Commitment of soldiers to their unit manifested itself in the worship of military ensigns and Genii. However, corporative solidarity of the military often led to their covering up each other, especially during mutinies and civil wars, as well as in conflicts with civilians. In general, corporativeness of the Imperial army based on peculiar social ties within military community and special personal relations between the emperor and his soldiers as well was a natural form of rallying the military units in the conditions when the Roman military organization ceased to be grounded on civic-communical or ethnic ties.

A contradictory blending of ancient traditions and new tendencies in the development of the military organization showed up in the sphere of military discipline. Disciplina militaris was an important category of the Roman value system and a component of the «Roman myth». The axiological meaning of this concept is revealed through tense opposition between the heroic norm expressed by the notion of severity (severitas) and various vices, which result from ingratiation to and indulgence of soldiers by their commanders (ambitio, indulgentia). In narrations about the glorious past of Rome severitas and ambitio belong to different poles, but for the epochs of the Late Republic and the Principate our sources stress the necessity to find some common ground, something like a balance between both the poles, more and more persistently. Such judgements indicate that under the conditions of a regular professional army the discipline could be maintained by means different from those used in the period of a citizen militia. In the Imperial army discipline was conditioned not by ruthless punishments or civil solidarity of soldiers, but by administrative and legal means, systematic training of the personnel, various benefits and incentives, corporative unity of contingents as well as by personal ties of the emperor with his army. However, effectiveness of those factors depended, to a considerable extent, on the morally motivated attitude of soldiers themselves to discipline. Many episodes show that even at critical moments the discipline of legions was conditioned by value conceptions of the discipline deeply rooted in the consciousness of soldiers and associated with the notions of military duty and honour. This «love for obedience» was based on the traditional Roman values and was passed over from generation to generation through military traditions, legal and sacral norms, legendary and live examples. At the same time, conservatism of the Roman military organization made the orientation to severitas an inevitable factor of the army life regardless of the destructive character of opposite tendencies. The image of a strict military leader was the behaviour pattern emulated by many emperors and glorified by public opinion.

A no less important category of the army's value system was the concept of military valour (virtus). Ancient authors always regarded virtus as an inalienable national feature of the Romans, as a decisive factor of their victories. According to the traditional notions, the true valour could be manifested only in the struggle with a worthy enemy and only at a war conducted by fair means and in accordance with both the divine law and ancestors' customs. The Roman concept of military valour is immediately connected with the notions of soldiers' honour and glory. It implies such normative qualities as steadfastness, bravery, persistence and discipline, all being inseparable from strict rational organisation, military training and permanent labours. Having originally been an aristocratic value, virtus became a moral orientation of the rank and file. Many facts of Roman military history confirm that the genuine Roman notions of valour, glory and honour were present in the consciousness of the Roman soldiers. Among them, military valour, honour and glory were the objects of zealous competition and rivalry. Jealousy to them induced a soldier to publicly demonstrate his best qualities in order to receive recognition from his comrades-in-arms and commanders. Demands of the military honour code often prevailed over all other motives. So the emulation for valour and honour was an effective factor stimulating the soldiers' individual and collective performance. In the Imperial army such notions were of corporative character. Generally, the competitive spirit in the Roman forces was more pronounced than in Greek armies. This fact is confirmed by the existence of very elaborated and adaptable system of military honours, including various military decorations.

During the Imperial period, this system developed on the basis of ancient traditions and concepts. It encouraged the soldiers' ardour and emulation for honour rather successfully. Military honores in the form of decorations and ranks were always regarded as a reward for the real achievements and valour. However, in reality the receipt of honours was conditioned by the soldier's social status and position in the army hierarchy, his personal relations with the commander, as well as by patronage and bribes. In the soldier's eyes the honours directly depended on the emperor's appraisal. It was the emperor who had the right to award any honours. Soldiers' inscriptions that contain the detailed enumeration of men's positions, rewards and indications of circumstances of having been rewarded, as well as dedications to deities on the occasion of promotion to a higher rank, confirm the great importance of military honores for soldiers themselves. While the promotions were accompanied with solid material advantages, the military decorations always remained an essential moral stimulation, and their importance directly depended on the preservation of the traditional values among the soldiers. Evidently, it is not a pure accident that dona began to decline in the age of Caracalla, when almost all the status differences between soldiers of the legions and those of auxilia disappeared.

The military traditions of Rome and martial mentality were permeated with religious notions and feelings. Professional corporative identity of the military society manifested itself in the religio castrensis, i. e. a complex of specific army cults and worships. Worthy of service to the emperor, military valour and honour were inseparable from the soldiers' pietas. Epigraphic and other testimonies show the Roman soldiers to have been directly connected to a divine protection of their career achievements, victories of the Roman arms, both their comrades'-in-arms and the emperor's well-being. The army religious practice was impregnated not only with routine formalities, but also with sincere individual faith of ordinary soldiers. The specific features of the religio castrensis are especially obvious in the soldiers' relation to and worship of the military ensigns and standards. The Roman signa militaria played a significant role in commanding the troops, they were the embodiment of the individuality of units and detachments, and personified the military honour and glory. The presence of the signa in battle formations served as an efficient moral-psychological stimulus for the valorous performance of the soldiers. The military ethic attitude to the signa (signorum amor as Seneca calls this feelling) was certainly based on their sacral nature. The standards were worshipped as real cult objects: sacrifices and other rituals were dedicated to them, they even had special temples and were as well sacral guarantees of oaths. Perhaps, the signa worship was associated with the cults of geniuses and various Roman deities. The sacral nature of the signa may be interpreted as the numen, a particular divine essence.

On the whole, the traditions and mentality of the Roman imperial army correlated in many of their elements with the ancient Romans' value system. At the same time, the alienation and corporative character of the regular professional army gave rise to the specific military ethos based on peculiar values and notions. However, conservatism of the Roman military traditions led to the preservation of a number of the fundamental institutions and concepts going back to very old times.
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